Looking to biodiversity to build more resilient supply chains

12 Juli 2021

Grocery trips, home improvement projects and digital devices: Beyond the public health catastrophe, the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated a host of human vulnerabilities, among them the emergency-driven shortages of food and other life essentials linked to supply chain disruptions.

Scientists with FEWSION, a government-funded initiative in the United States, are focused on how those supply chains connect and sustain communities. So focused, in fact, that they’ve mapped every county in the U.S. to better understand how people depend on each other for water, food, energy and other resources. An interactive tool called FEW-View™ helps people to visualize how and where machinery (or lumber or livestock or water) flows into or out of any region.

Plenty of people never really thought about it before the pandemic, or a natural disaster like the recent North American heat waves and wildfires, disrupted access to what they need. But at FEWSION – a collaboration of Northern Arizona University and academic partners – they’re crunching the supply chain data in hopes of making both cities and rural communities more shockproof in the coming climate future.

And it’s a lot of data. This kind of mapping has only been done once before, and that was just for the city of Flagstaff, Arizona, according to director Ben Ruddell. So it’s been the job of Michael Gomez, using the supercomputers at Penn State University, to sort information on food and help glean insights for better resilience.

The FEWSION team did so while looking to biodiversity in nature as a model for resilience and adaptation, since supply chains are similar to food webs in natural ecosystems. Their findings, published last week in Nature, suggest a 15 percent increase in food supply chain resilience when exposed to mild to moderate shock, if there is more diversity in the supply chain “web” to begin with.

The researchers say the diversity of a city’s supply chain explains more than 90 percent of the intensity, duration and frequency of food supply shocks in U.S. cities. If the model worked for food, it would give planners and policymakers a reliable metric when assessing their supply chain vulnerabilities. Ruddell says it works not just for food but regardless of the cause of the shock, a discovery he thinks is as profound as it is practical.

“We now have a simple and effective mathematical basis for policies to boost a city’s supply chain resilience,” says Ruddell. “Coming years will reveal how broadly this finding holds for other kinds of supply chains. Does it hold for households? Nations? Electricity? Telecommunications?”

The findings are especially important in light of the pandemic, but also supply chain disruptions caused by natural disasters or global developments like the Suez Canal shutdown in March. In that case, the impact of a single shipping lane shut down by mere meters is still reverberating across the global economy.

“This is why ecological theory is so important—if we have diverse supply chains that mimic ecological systems, they can more readily adapt to unforeseeable shocks,” says Ruddell. “We can use this nature-inspired design to create more resilient supply chains.”

Map of expected shock intensities of an annual duration food supply chain shock with annual occurrence probability of 1%.The shock intensities are represented as a fraction of the average annual inflows. The annual occurrence probability of 1 percent is also known as a 100-year food supply shock.


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